Explosions. Engines. Artillery. Gunfire. These are just a few of the things that members of the United States military are exposed to on a regular basis that generate sounds loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. In an attempt to mitigate some of that damage, the military provides earplugs to those that need them.
Hearing protection has evolved considerably over the years. Far from simply stuffing some foam in one’s ears or wearing large headphone-style covers, today’s hearing protection devices offer the ability to tailor the protection to the sounds one will encounter. A flip of an earplug can change the protection away from an overall shield against all loud noises into something that will only take effect in the presence of loud, concussive-type noises like an explosion or the firing of a gun.
There’s only one catch – the earplug has to fit properly in the wearer’s ears.
3M’s dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs didn’t. In fact, a manufacturing defect led to the production of earplugs that were too short and could loosen in the ear canal over time, thus negating any protective benefit. Evidence indicates 3M knew about the defect. They knew about the defect when the contract was being signed and finalized. And, they knew about it when they delivered the faulty earplugs for distribution throughout our military.
In the end, it took a whistleblower operating under the protections of the False Claims Act to stand up and inform the U.S. government that 3M was knowingly selling faulty equipment to its servicemen and women. The government’s response was as incredulous as could be expected. “Government contractors who seek to profit at the expense of our military will face appropriate consequences,” promised Chad Readler; Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.
Yet, those “consequences” amounted only to a $9.1 million fine for a company whose revenue was $31.66 billion in 2017. Now, military veterans have taken matters in their own hands and have begun filing individual 3M earplug lawsuits. The stream of lawsuits is expected to continue, and there have been moves toward creating a multidistrict litigation over the matter.
Whether or not 3M will lose its contract as a result of its attempt to sell faulty equipment to the United States military remains to be seen.